Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Judy Norsigian, executive director and a founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, is a co-author of "Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause" and "Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy[…]

Mainstream media messages lead us to be totally dissatisfied with who and what we are—and make us into consumers of products and procedures rather than contributors to our community.

Question: How can women figure out what medical information to trust? 

Judy Norsigian: Well we do live in a culture that does beams out the message more is usually better, the high-tech solution is the best solution. What we don’t often do is watch and wait, particularly with drugs post marketing to see that once something becomes in more widespread use then you begin to see the downside. You see low-level negative effects. Now if you’re somebody who has got cancer and you need a chemotherapy drug you know there are some downsides to chemotherapy drugs, but you’ve got a really clear benefit that you’re hoping for. In fact, some studies show efficacy for some of these drugs that is very impressive. If you’re somebody who has a condition for which the solution is not necessarily proven to be that efficacious, which probably has more of a downside than you can see particularly if it is a new solution, a new drug or a new treatment it’s usually better to watch and wait. There are many parents for example who looked at the fact that the HPV vaccine was largely studied in older women, 15, 16 to 25 yet it is being marketed for the 9 to 12 year-old girls out there because of course it is not effective if you get to a young women after she has been sexually active, so there is reason for this targeting of very young girls, but there are parents who have said, “You know there is only a few hundred women in those… a few hundred girls in those clinical trials.” “I’m going to watch and wait because I don’t want my daughter to be a guinea pig.” And in fact, that is what it is if you’re dealing with a product, a vaccine or anything else where in the large clinical trials your particular group you’re looking at and these are 9 to 12 year-old girls, weren’t representative in the sample in those studies and that is the kind of thing that we encourage our constituencies to listen for, to look for. Where is the evidence? Does it really have to be taken, this drug, this procedure? Does it have to be done now? Can you watch and wait? 

And we also want to caution women about elective procedures. So many women are jumping on the cosmetic surgery bandwagon. There is a lot of promotion for the latest form of surgery. It has even gotten to the point of labiaplasties and vaginal rejuvenation and ridiculous approaches that in fact maim some women that have really questionable benefits and cost a lot of money. These are things you have to pay out of pocket for because medical insurance of course won’t cover elective cosmetic surgery. And women are being duped into thinking their lives will be made better. Women think if they get augmentation, breast augmentation and they get the latest silicone gel breast implants suddenly their lives will be a whole lot better. They might feel better about how that part of their body looks if they aren’t one of the women who have a problem post surgery, but the studies show that overall you’re not happier with your life just because you do breast augmentation. The things about your life, how your personal life goes, how your job is going, your relationship with your friends, those things don’t change because you get breast augmentation even though you think they might and it’s that kind of social science research we want women to recognize and we want their partners to recognize too. I met a boyfriend at a college campus who pleaded with his girlfriend not to get breast augmentation. He said she was perfectly fine. He had done some research on the Internet beyond the ads at the plastic surgeon websites and he could see these were some significant risks and he didn’t want his girlfriend taking them and her response to him when he pleaded with her not to undergo breast augmentation was, “You know everybody in my sorority is doing it, so I’ve got to do it too.” And he said to me, he said that is when I realized that a boyfriend’s opinion only goes so far. It’s the culture that is teaching women messages about their bodies and it is the culture that is encouraging what he believed were risky practices. 

Question: What is most damaging to women in our culture? 

Judy Norsigian: Well I think the omnipresence of the media and the nature of the media it’s gotten more violent, more sexually violent. Access to pretty violent pornography is readily available to very young children, boys and girls and parents who think their kids don’t have access to the material are sorely misled. There are parents now learning to ask their children not to eliminate the cache. They go in and look at what their kids are looking at sometimes because they’re learning some amazing things. The fact is that we will not be able to offset this incredible impact of mass media, except insofar as we talk about these issues. We bring the conversation to the dinner table. We watch some of these things with our kids, that we ask our kids to become better deconstructors of media. There are so many misogynistic messages that lead even young women to think about themselves in pejorative ways that it is scary to me as someone who didn’t grow up with all this around me. I was more protected from it. I think the worst I could do was go into my uncle’s closet and find his stash of Playboy magazines and flip through them, but I didn’t see the kind of really violent pornography that is out there in steady fair, especially for young men who then expect certain things of young women they become involved with. They consider this normal and routine and I know some filmmakers are taking this on. 

I will say that one of the roots to educating young people about all of the misinformation and sometimes the strange ideologies that become embedded in our brains without our realizing it is to really follow the talented young documentarians who are trying to get at some of these problems. They are getting at the food supply. They’re getting at pornography. They’re getting at sexuality. They’re getting all manner of the issues that I consider social problems now, but they’re doing it with good humor. They’re doing it through interviews, through personal storytelling. They’re really finding a way to grab the attention of young people who are bombarded with messages from everywhere. It’s everything from texting and apps and you know for your phones and you know that your favorite programs, which of course you can see at any time of day through TiVo or on the internet. You can literally be saturated with media that may or may not be inclusive of correct information, accurate information. Just take tobacco and women for example. There are so many attractive characters in movies and television shows who are smoking all the time. Ten, fifteen years ago that wasn’t the case, so though we know a lot about tobacco use and certainly you know some women certainly know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality in women. It’s not breast cancer or something else. Nonetheless we see rates of smoking rising among young women, older teens, women in their early 20s even when they’re better educated. It used to be a socioeconomically linked problem. Now I think something has happened with the media and its impact on very smart young women that you see more of them smoking. It’s also tied in with the obsession with thinness in this culture. A little weight on your body is a good thing. The important thing is to eat well, to get some exercise, you know to feel good and where your body lands in terms of weight is where it probably ought to be, but the obsession with body weight, with thinness, with the hourglass figure has led to a kind of starvation approach to eating for many women and a kind of obsession with food and body type that makes it impossible for young women to have healthy lifestyles and that is part of what we’re up against is we have go media selling all kinds of starvation diets, ideas, all kinds of ideas about body image that really run against the grain of what is healthy and we need sane voices wherever they can be found, on the internet occasionally, in a community setting who will say stop, wait. 

Our favorite advice to young girls is don’t buy the standard glossy magazines filled with ads and articles that will lead you to self loathing. They will lead you to body hating. Instead don’t read them. Throw them away. If you’re young get magazines like Teen Voices, magazines that are explicitly about rejecting these mainstream media messages that lead us to be totally dissatisfied with who and what we are, that lead us to be primarily consumers of products and procedures rather than contributive to our community, to society. You know people with brains and ideas and people who can make great contributions to making this world a better place. If we’re spending all our time dieting and buying every single product under the sun and analyzing all these ads in the magazines that we read we don’t have time to join the community efforts that make this world a better place. 

Question: Can women enjoy fashion and glamour responsibly? 

Judy Norsigian: There is no question that its innate among human beings to want to adorn our bodies, to want to wear interesting clothes, to pierce our bodies, to do all kinds of things that make us look interesting, different, to make a signature statement. There is nothing wrong with that unless we start doing things that really pose significant harm to our health and then we should be doing it only with our eyes open and that is where for example with fashion. I know some teenagers who decided to put on their own fashion show and they designed their own clothes, but they weren’t proposing that women get up in very high heels, which are really bad for your feet number one. They weren’t proposing that women wear constrictive clothing that makes it really hard to move around or clothing that they didn’t feel good in. They chose clothing they felt really good in and they chose clothing that would be reasonable in terms of what somebody could produce. It wouldn’t be so totally expensive that only rich people could afford it. I mean that is part of the problem is that we’ve created a culture where everybody is supposed to aspire to or emulate the most expensive thing on the market or what the very rich folks are doing rather than what really would be fun for us and it might not be what rich folks are doing. It might be what we think looks good, feels good and the same goes for food. We can bring locally grown vegetables that taste great even to the inner city and we’re doing that with projects that prove you can get really good food, tasty food and you don’t have to buy plastic food filled with chemicals that are actually known to harm our health. 
Recorded on April 20, 2010